staying sun safe

Michelle Liu
May 23, 2024

Year-round sunshine is one of the perks of living in Hawaii, but being exposed to too much sunlight can be dangerous.  

May is Melanoma and Skin Cancer Awareness Month. With more than 5 million cases diagnosed in the U.S. every year, skin cancer is the most common cancer in America. But it’s also one of the most preventable.  

Who’s at risk?
People who have lighter skin, skin that burns easily, and a family history of skin cancer are at greater risk of getting skin cancer. But it can affect anyone.

“Sometimes people think, ‘oh, if I’m darker, I’m not going to get skin cancer.’ But skin cancer doesn’t discriminate,” says Ryan Sato, M.D., a Honolulu dermatologist and president of the Hawaii Dermatological Society. 

How can we protect ourselves?
The easiest way to prevent skin cancer is to limit exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Unprotected skin can be damaged by the sun’s UV rays in as little as 15 minutes.

“Skin has memory. The sun exposure and sunburns we get when we’re young and throughout our lives can catch up to us and put us at a higher risk of skin cancer later in life,” says Dr. Sato.

And UV rays aren’t just strong on sunny days. They can still shine through clouds and reflect off surfaces like water, sand, and cement.

The sun’s UV rays are especially strong in Hawaii because of our proximity to the equator. Combine that with our active outdoor lifestyles, and direct sunlight increases our risk of sunburn, skin damage, and skin cancer, particularly melanoma, the deadliest type.

But there are ways to protect yourself when you’re outside walking, surfing, paddleboarding, or simply sitting on your lanai, enjoying the warm weather.

  • Use sunscreen SPF 30 or above (and remember to reapply every two hours or after sweating, swimming, and other exercise).
  • Wear protective clothing, including long sleeves, pants, hats, and sunglasses.
  • Seek shade under trees, umbrellas, and canopies.
  • Avoid being outside during the peak sun hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

“I tell my patients I don’t want them to be hermits and just stay indoors, not doing anything,” says Dr. Sato. “Go out and enjoy our islands, but be smart about things. Take these kinds of precautions as far as protecting ourselves from the sun.” 

Why are self-checks important?    
When it’s caught early, skin cancer can be treated. That’s why Dr. Sato also recommends consistent screening – not just with a dermatologist, but also doing skin self-exams.

“Look out for new moles or something that just doesn’t look right,” says Dr. Sato. “If it’s bleeding or itchy, that could be a concern. If you notice a change in a mole, or if it hasn’t healed or if it looks darker, that can be a warning sign.”

Learning where all your moles, freckles, and other marks on your skin are to make it easier for you to spot any changes.

“You know your body best. If there’s something concerning to you, bring it up to your dermatologist,” says Dr. Sato. “The earlier we’re able to detect skin cancer, the more successful the treatment.”

Get outside!
These stories will inspire you to have fun in the great outdoors. Remember your sunscreen!

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